DramaWatch: It’s Bath Night, kids

Former "Live Wire" star Sean McGrath is back in town, getting ready for a run of sketch comedy. Plus "Hair" and other openings.

During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now? 

“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V

Lori Ferraro and Todd Van Voris in rehearsal for Bath Night sketch comedy.

He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”


DramaWatch Weekly: On the Proscenium

Portland Shakes loose a few new plays, Staged! welcomes some alumni home, and new shows open in Portland and Ashland

Michael Mendelson long has been one of Portland’s busiest and most accomplished actors, but even by his standards he has a packed calendar for the coming theater season. He’ll head east to the Midwest later this month to help Nebraska Rep kick off its 2018-19 season, directing David Javerbaum’s divine comedy An Act of God (with Trisha Miller, Mendelson’s co-star in Artists Rep’s 2011 God of Carnage, taking the role of God this time). Once back in town, he’ll be in a string of promising Artists Rep showsSmall Mouth Sounds, Everybody (by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose brilliant An Octoroon featured Mendelson last fall) and A Doll’s House, Part 2. He has work in the offing for Profile Theatre, as well.

And — oh, yeah — he heads his own company, too. So before all of that, there’s Portland Shakespeare Project and this weekend’s fourth annual Proscenium Live Festival of New Work, a four-night series of free performances.

Michael Mendelson — in mogul mode from Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” at Artists Rep in 2013 — has his plate full with acting, directing and leading Portland Shakes. Photo: Owen Carey

Produced in conjunction with the literary journal Proscenium, the festival is something of a family affair. Proscenium is the work of brothers Steve and Billy Rathje, whose mother Karen Rathje is managing director of Portland Shakes and audience services manager for Artists Rep, where the festival will be held. Steve Rathje also is an actor, appearing here in Patrick Wohlmut’s Patchwork Dreams.


DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.


Hughes Heaven

Staged!'s teen musical "John Hughes High" is pure '80s gold

There’s a moment in Staged!’s new musical John Hughes High when a teenage girl realizes she’s falling in love. Yet the object of her affection is not one person—it’s a school packed with loners, leaders, artists, athletes, and plenty of kids who haven’t quite figured out what they are.

Nerd City: Aidan Tappert, Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez in “John Hughes High.” Photo: David Kinder

That moment is proof that the creators of John Hughes High, Mark LaPierre and Eric Nordin, understand that while Hughes had a sense of humor about high-school heartaches (who doesn’t laugh when Jon Cryer gets chucked into the girls’ bathroom in Pretty in Pink?), he did his young characters the honor of taking their emotions and desires seriously. John Hughes High (which is enjoying its world premiere on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep) does the same, and as a result, the rapidly beating heart of its heroine briefly becomes yours.


Kid power: Fly Guy, Teen Musical

Staged!'s "1980's Teen Musical" and Oregon Children's Theatre's "Fly Guy: The Musical" bring some fresh young blood to Fertile Ground

When in doubt, check the kids out.

Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.

I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.

So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.


Toxic glory: ‘Heathers: The Musical’

The '80s teen-cult movie hit adds some songs and spunk in a soaring stage collaboration by Triangle and Staged!

Ah … the Reagan ’80s, back when politicians had good hair. It was a B+ era: Spielberg dominated with milquetoast dramas pinned on the high-octane antics of cleverly drawn action films. The causes were taken out of rebels, former Yippie Jerry Rubin became a vitamin mogul, and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver voted Republican. Retail therapy was invented, and for many people the cultural climate heated up in malls. Disney-esque perfection in all its primary colors and nostalgia for a Beaver Cleaver 1950s was on cable television sets and radios. After Black Monday, when the stock market plummeted at the end of the decade, everyday people were becoming a little restless with conformity.

And then there was Heathers. Triangle Productions, in collaboration with Staged!, has assembled a 17-member cast and brought to life (and death) a painstakingly grand stage production of that pop-cultural icon of the era.

Heathers, hangin' in the hall. Photo: Triangle Productions

Heathers, hangin’ in the hall. Photo: Triangle Productions

In the ’80s a few video store clerks, such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith ,and Daniel Waters, began writing scripts inspired by the edgier ’70s films with their Mike Hammer dialogue. In 1988, Daniel Waters came out with a cinematic flop titled Heathers. But teenagers fell in love, and it became a quick cult classic. It was as if John Waters, Milton Friedman, and Michael Eisner had made a film together. Winona Ryder, fresh off the sneaker hit Beetlejuice, played Veronica in the film, and those roles cemented her as the somewhat pensive and melancholy pretty girl who always triumphs because of her big heart.


Another Saturday night: Staged! has a Dogfight

Against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, a bittersweet musical looks at the emerging feminism of the 1960s


We know Eddie Birdlace made it home. He’s sitting with his drab canvas duffle bag, spit-shined boots and razor-short, military-issue haircut on a San Fransisco bus. He’s a man of few words, but the Dobb’s-crowned gentleman next to him is chatting him up, the way that confident but secluded older citizens take a parental nudge toward somber travelers.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. If you’re old enough, or if you’ve seen the newsreels, you may remember the footage of Bell helicopters being thrown into the ocean and immigrants fleeing the south of the country for California. That’s the backdrop for the musical play Dogfight, a melodic take on young masculinity led astray in overdrive, which Staged! is performing at CoHo through Sunday, November 29.

Ryan Monaghan and Jessica Tidd: wo you callin' a dog? Photo: David Kinder

Ryan Monaghan and Jessica Tidd: wo you callin’ a dog? Photo: David Kinder

Dogfight premiered three years ago and has gone on to win critical awards and find a place in the hearts of audiences around the country. And it’s no looking-back on personal history by Vietnam vets: its creators – music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan –are in their 20s. Based upon a little-known B film from the early 1990s starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, Dogfight is a romcom that hits some serious notes on the early ’60s emergence of feminism. There’s a conversational poetry to the lyrics, reminiscent of a young Stephen Sondheim, with a harmonic update influenced by Wicked‘s Stephen Schwartz.